After collecting royalties for years, a Court found that Warner/Chappell lacked copyright ownership in the lyrics to the world's most famous song, "Happy Birthday." The Court found that because the current publisher's alleged predecessor "never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics."
The melody of the song is the same as one called "Good Morning," which was published in a songbook and subject to copyright protection under the 1909 Act until 1949. Both parties agree the melody entered the public domain years ago. The origins of the "Happy Birthday" lyrics is less clear, as those lyrics did not appear in the same songbook as "Good Morning." Subsequent publications of the lyrics noted that the tuen for "Happy Birthday" was the same as "Good Morning," but did not credit an author of the lyrics. The decision then explains the alleged chain of title to the lyrics of "Happy Birthday."
Plaintiffs, bringing a declaratory judgment action, alleged that Defendants do not own the copyright in the lyrics to Happy Birthday, and thus should not have been collecting royalties for licensing the song (and should be compelled to return collected royalties). The Court was facing cross-motions for summary judgment.
First, the Court found that a 1935 registration was not subject to a presumption of validity. There was a facial and material defect in the registration, nameley that it did not state that the lyrics were being copyrighted. Thus, there was no presumption that the lyrics were registered.
Next, the Court examined: who wrote the lyrics to Happy Birthday? The Court found there was conflicting evidence, and therefore a material question of fact for trial.
Then, the Court examined whether, whoever wrote the lyrics, any copyright in the work was divested by publication before the 1935 registration? Under the 1909 Act, general publication without notice of copyright divested the author of common law and federal copyright protection. Again, the Court found a question of material fact whether the alleged authors granted their publisher the right to generally publish the song.
Next, the Court examined whether the alleged author abandoned her interest. Although the plaintiffs had found an article where the alleged author said that she had resigned herserlf to the fact that the song was the publics, the Court found questions of fact on this issue again a ground to deny summary judgment.
Then, the Court examined the alleged transfers in interest of the song lyrics, and three old agreements between the alleged authors and their publisher. The court found that Defendants had no evidence a transfer occurred, whether by oral statement, by writing, or by conduct. "Defendants ask us to find that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect, but this assertion has no support in the record. The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to th e lyrics. Defendants’ speculation that the pleadings in the Hill-Summy lawsuit somehow show that the Second Agreement involved a transfer of rights in the lyrics is implau sible and unreasonable. Defendants’ suggestion that the Third Agreement effected such a transfer is circular and fares no better. As far as the record is concerned, even if the Hill sisters still held common law rights by the time of the Second or Third Agreement, they di d not give those rights to Summy Co."